Has anyone noticed that the woman is completely delusional? Apparently, Muriel Spark meant her fictional teacher Miss Jean Brodie to be an endearing yet tragic figure, but a character so ridiculously self-important would try anyone’s patience. “I am in my prime,” Brodie tells her students, all girls beginning adolescence, and explains, “You are benefiting by my prime.” It is tough to imagine how her students kept from convulsing in endless guffaws.
Spark’s novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, first appeared in 1961, and in 1969 Maggie Smith starred in the title role in an acclaimed feature film of the same name. The novel is brilliantly crafted, and the film beautifully presents the varying shades of grey dominating 1930s Edinburgh, Scotland.
In 1992, Spark wrote in her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, that she based Jean Brodie in part on Christina Kay, one of her teachers at James Gillespie’s School for Girls in Edinburgh. Although Spark claimed that “in a sense Miss Kay was nothing like Miss Brodie,” she stated that former students of Miss Kay never “failed to recognize her, with joy and great nostalgia, in the shape of Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.”
Jean Brodie teaches at the mythical Marcia Blaine School in Edinburgh. Ostensibly teaching about history, she really teaches about herself. In place of the established course of studies, her self-absorbed rambling in the classroom ranges from her travels in Italy to her taste for Renaissance art to her fascination with political dictators.
At some point in her life, Brodie chose to make a common mistake: She identifies one of her facets with her very self. “I am a teacher, first, last, always!” she insists in the film. For “teacher,” substitute any other noun—daughter, sister, baker, bicyclist—and the absurdity becomes obvious. Perhaps someone is born with a talent for teaching, but on one’s deathbed, talents are in the past, and one is entirely a child of God.
As are so many others, teaching is a transactional occupation. A teacher is hired to convey information students would not read about or even know about on their own. When a teacher decides there must be more to it, that a teacher must be a guru, trouble begins. However artfully told, the story has become one of the most boring in Western culture: A maverick teacher whose style runs afoul of the authorities.
Seemingly hidebound administrators become the baddies, somehow never appreciating a rebellious teacher upsetting the proverbial apple cart. Narcissistic hubris leads an avant-garde teacher who gets reprimanded, or even dismissed, to visions of martyrdom. The secular prototype is Socrates, but his ultimate derivative is the child-molesting protagonist of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys.
Jean Brodie stands in the latter category, but her abuse of her students is not physical. Instead, she indulges in emotional manipulation of them and uses them to stimulate her own ego. She preens herself as an educational Vestal Virgin, an unmarried woman consecrated to keeping alive the flame of learning. “You girls are my vocation,” she tells her students, asserting, “If I were to receive a proposal of marriage tomorrow from the Lord Lyon King-of-Arms, I would decline it.” After all, she reminds them, “I am dedicated to you in my prime.”
She sees herself as “a leaven in the lump,” that is, the school, what she calls “this education factory.” In addition to assuring her students that they are benefiting from her prime, she tells them, “I am putting old heads on your young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème.” Later she declares, “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.” The cliché about possessing delusions of grandeur puts it mildly.
Both in the film and in the book, Brodie’s solipsistic dedication to others weighs as quite a burden. One of her students reports Brodie to the school’s headmistress and thus serves as Brodie’s betrayer. As did many progressive intellectuals of the time, Brodie admires Benito Mussolini as a new Julius Caesar, and Brodie’s exalted self-regard ranks her alongside such a world-bestriding colossus. Brodie’s student who becomes her Brutus has had enough; to her, Brodie thinks of herself as God and needs to be brought down to Earth.
In the book, Brodie’s betrayer later converts to Catholicism and becomes a cloistered nun. Here it bears noting that Spark herself converted to Catholicism but was married. Like her contemporary fellow Catholic converts Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, Spark composed best-selling stories full of complex but often unlikable characters. However, life has enough complexity and unlikableness, and plenty of readers opt for other literary diversions. Catholic readers are under no obligation to pore over books by Catholic authors if their writings are just not one’s cup of tea.
To heighten Brodie’s vivacious contrast with the sedate patterns of the school, Spark has Brodie take issue with a campaign poster for Stanley Baldwin. Marcia Blaine’s headmistress had voted for Baldwin, and so to Brodie, drab local and national authority figures align to frustrate her. It never occurs to her that they could be in the right.
As Prime Minister, facing financial and geopolitical challenges, Baldwin’s motto was “Safety First.” Brodie tells her students, “Safety does not come first,” adding, “Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first.”
Had Brodie chosen to step outside her private echo chamber, she would have learned that Baldwin was a highly cultured man. He was a cousin to Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling, and he enjoyed the novels of his friend and fellow Member of Parliament, John Buchan. In 1924, he admired Mary Webb’s new novel, Precious Bane, so much, he wrote a foreword for its second edition. A graduate of Cambridge, Baldwin was in 1903 an original member of the Classical Association, and in 1926 served as its president.
In his presidential address, he said, “all that is asked of a prospective member” of the Classical Association is love of the ancient classics, meaning, “love of the beautiful, love of the best, love of the ideal.” Baldwin shrewdly cultivated an image of a stolid, pipe-smoking country squire because he knew that leisure for loving classic things needs safety and stability. For some of us, the choice is easy between a Prime Minister who read Horace and Seneca and a blathering middle school teacher captivated by delusions of her own prime.